Projects: make classwork like a little project, and projects like big classwork. But cooler.

kittenthornThere’s a saying: practice like you’ll play, and you’ll play like you’ve practiced. Generally, this is about the need for teams to take their practicing seriously – with discipline and intent – allowing game day to feel like a well-prepared-for challenge – and not a scramble headfirst off a cliff.

In class planning, too often I see (and have written) projects with high stakes based on skills that have never been practiced in class.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be planning awesome projects. One of the five things I remember from High School was a mythology project, wherein I created an epic radio drama. Did it contain computerized music, voices, hilarious non-sequiturs, and scraps of information from class? Yes.

Did I use it to bring learning I’d been doing all semester to the next level?

No.

Here are some guidelines to help your projects be, truly, scaffolded opportunities to “connect-the-dots” and stretch out, creatively – and not, well, hilarious non-sequiturs.


  • porkylolcatDeconstruct the various skills required to complete the suggested project. Can you guarantee that the students will know (or will have learned) how to do those things? If not, you need to build training time into class. Example: I’ve seen classes where a formative assessment is a mock courtroom scenario. I wonder: did the teacher teach how to cross-examine? Or classes where the final project is a website: did the teacher spend time in class on the basics of website design?
  • Notice some of the practices you are habitually working on in class. Is there a way to incorporate that into your project? Example: I teach reflective listening all year long. Only recently have I begun to include an interview project as part of the curriculum – but unlike most interviews where the interviewer is silent, In my class, the student reflects the main kernel of the subjects’ statements. (For more on teaching reflective listening, click here).
  • If you are having trouble composing a project that is truly aligned with the core skills of your class, not to worry. Consider this approach: use the project as a low-stakes (not graded or given a completion grade) venue for creating rich content. Students work together without fear of their project getting a “bad grade.” Students play with materials and content.  Then, after show-and-tell and critique and second drafts, teach a unit on how to interpret and evaluate other students’ work. Students get practice in comparing and contrasting, asking generative questions, and brainstorming improvements or “next steps.”
  • Finally, as a final assessment, in pairs or alone, students write an evaluation of other students’ work – using all the skills they have learned. In other words, the project is the content but the written evaluation is the assessment.

For a deeper dive into classwork as a “pooled resource,” see blog 23.

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“If this was my project…” : Using Pooled Resources for peer feedback and evalution

The first slide of a student's presenation

A slide from a student’s presentation

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


This is part 2 of a mini-series on Pooled Resources / Individual Collaboration. For part one, click here.


Let’s say that you come up with a cool project for class.

Say: Design and build (using computer drafting programs or 3d craft and found materials) a monument to be placed in the Mall in Washington DC for something that has affected American society during your lifetime.

1331Let’s say you teach all the concepts of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around – planning, building, revising – getting feedback. The whole shebang.

Now what? You grade it with a rubric?

Sure. You can do that.

I have a better idea:

boothHave students link to their projects on a shared class document – either to a photo, a screenshot, or to whatever online link brings a visitor to the students’ work – along with a document providing a “tour” of their project, an explanation.

Next, assign an essay that requires students to explore a topic, where a component of the analysis requires them to review their classmates projects and, choosing 2-3 from below:

A. Compare / contrast / critique various projects’ details, approach, and / or themes, statements

B. Riff off ideas begun by various projects

C. Suggest changes the artist could (hypothetically?) make to make a more effective piece – using the phrase: “If this was my project,” I would ______.

Additional Notes:

1. Students may analyze their own buildings; include a slightly adjusted set of prompts for this.

2. This allows even students who bomb the project to recover and learn from the unit.

3. Knowing that others students will see their work is an incentive to create a polished piece of work!